Why We Buy: An Expert in Consumer Behavior Shares His Strategies

Recently, consumer expert Paco Underhill was helping a European jewelry brand plan a new store in Beverly Hills. In France and Italy, their branches have a private chamber for customers making purchases of $100,000 or more. European luxury shoppers, usually from old money, appreciate discretion (especially if they’re buying for someone other than their spouse). But the California location wouldn’t need the secret room, Underhill argued: nouveaux riches Americans like having an audience when they spend.

Fortune 50 companies pay Underhill and his firm, Envirosell, handsomely for such insights. Everyone else can read his editorials for The New York Times, or his books, including Why We Buy, which has been translated into 27 languages. In January, executives from around the world came to FIT’s Center for Professional Studies for his course, “The Science of Shopping.” Participants studied how every aspect of the commercial environment affects consumer behavior, learned principles of design for stores and e-commerce, discussed strategies for changing shoppers’ perceptions of brands, and conducted a case study of an actual retailer.

Though stores have traditionally been owned and managed by men, Underhill says, the empowered female shopper is altering the retail landscape. The sensuous environment of Victoria’s Secret is one result. Underhill also appreciates the ingenuity of Pirch, a store that specializes in modern bathrooms and kitchens. A typical sale ranges from $40,000 to 60,000. Through an innovative partnership with Tesla Motors, the wife can browse shower fixtures while the husband test drives a Model S (or, presumably, vice versa). Another creative idea is employed by Asiye’s Boutique in Connecticut, which sells prom, homecoming, and specialty dresses. To guarantee that no one else is wearing the same style, each dress is registered to a particular event or school.

FIT’s Center for Continuing and Professional Studies offers a range of courses related to retail, fashion, and business. Underhill’s “The Science of Shopping” will be offered again June 23-June 30.


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